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Nikkei Heritage

Something Mixed, Chanpuru and Other Okinawan Delights

In 2001 a team of internationally renowned experts released The Okinawa Program, How The World’s Longest-Lived People Achieve Everlasting Health – And How You Can Too. The book, based on a 25-year study, was quickly snatched up as the new fountain of youth (or at least key to longevity) only to be realized as yet another common sense approach to healthy eating and living. Okinawa might be a tropical island, but it’s hardly considered glamorous.

The traditional Okinawan diet consists largely of soy, local vegetables, seaweed, rice, noodles, tea, fish and surprisingly, pork. The Okinawan Program, however doesn’t acknowledge that good ol’ American SPAM, as in many island communities, is a diet staple.

Growing up with an Okinawan mother and Anglo American father in Southern California, my sisters and I enjoyed dishes not unlike many Nikkei families that are a mixture of cultures. We ate a lot of standard American fare such as meatloaf, fried chicken, and chili beans, but it was always served with Japanese white rice.

Though it was mostly for her Okinawan friends, my mother did cook Okinawan food occasionally. My sisters and I grew up on somen noodles stir-fried with green onions and canned tuna, cabbage, tofu and SPAM over rice, and the all favorite comfort food of okaiyu cooked in a shoyu broth with thin slices of cabbage and bonita flakes on top. Of course we loved Okinawan donuts, but we passed on fish heads and rice and pork with bitter melon. Actually, it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized that these dishes were Okinawan and not Japanese. On my first trip to Tokyo to visit my husband’s family, I actually lost weight because I found the cuisine too sweet for my taste.

Though the ingredients in Okinawan dishes are not vastly different from Japanese, the flavoring and the use of indigenous vegetables and local seafood, make the dishes distinctly Okinawan.

Okinawan cuisine tends to be stronger, spicier, and less sweet than typical Japanese dishes, largely due to the influence of trade with China and Southeast Asia. Tofu and kubu (dried kelp) are considered the mainstay in Okinawan dishes with the addition of beniimo (sweet potato), goya (bittermelon), daikon, squash, eggplant, green papaya, mustard cabbage, noodles, and, of course, pork. Okinawan flavorings include shoyu, miso, black sugar, and awamori, a brandy-like liquor made from rice. Koregusu is a condiment made from red peppers marinated in awamori.

Okinawans are the top pork producers in Japan and the top consumers. The Okinawan preparation of boiling the meat fresh for a good 30 minutes to remove much of the fat is evidently a healthier way to eat pork. Okinawans are resourceful too in respect to using every part of the pig that is edible in their cooking. Rafute a popular Okinawan glazed pork dish made with sugar, shoyu, and awamori, keeps for several days without spoiling, important in the subtropical climate of the islands, especially before the days of refrigeration.

Goya Chanpuru (Photo: Wikipedia.com)

As in all of Japan, noodles are popular in the southern islands and Okinawa is known for its soba. Yet, unlike Japan, Okinawan soba, or soki soba, is not made from buckwheat. The thick wheat noodles, more like udon, is served in a konbu flavored soup, topped with kamaboko, scallions, stewed pork belly, or boneless pork ribs, and garnished with beni shoga (pickled ginger). Koregusu may be added for extra spice. Somen, Okinawa style, calls for the thin rice noodles to be lightly fried with chives and meat, be it tuna or the ever-popular SPAM. It’s not uncommon for ketchup or omeboshi to be added to the dish called somen chanpuru.

Chanpuru is a catch-all term for the popular Okinawan stir-fry dish made up of a combination of ingredients such as tofu, vegetables (often goya), eggs, and some kind of meat, which might be SPAM or another island favorite, canned corned beef. Chanpuru means “something mixed” in Okinawan and the word sometimes refers to Okinawan culture because of its many influences.

Taco Rice (Photo: Wikipedia.com)

Nothing speaks to a mixture of cultures like takoraisu or taco rice, an Okinawan dish that is so popular that it appears on KFC’s menu all over Japan. Takoraisu is taco-flavored ground beef on a bed of rice and lettuce, usually served with tomato, cucumber, and cheese, topped with salsa. All of that can be rolled in a tortilla or the ingredients may be dipped in batter and deep fried. The dish was supposedly created in the 1960s by a local chef in Kin, Okinawa, home to a US Marine base, who combined Tex-Mex, so popular with Marines, with rice. Takoraisu is now one of most well-known Okinawan dishes outside of Okinawa.

Another well-known island treat is sata andagi or Okinawan donuts, often simply referred to as tempura. The basic ingredients are the same as most donuts, flour, sugar, eggs, and milk, mixed together and deep fried. There’s no fancy shape, just greasy, sweet fried balls, but the taste is all Okinawan.

While andagi may be more traditional than takoraisu, it’s doubtful that either is the key to living a long, healthy life. There are no recipes for either in The Okinawa Program. Instead the authors give credit to the island’s native plants and herbs. Turmeric, goya, beniimo, hechima (vegetable sponge) huchiba (mugwort), tofuyo, kudzu (arrowroot) and many more, are not only appreciated for their flavor, but also for their medicinal properties. During World War II indigenous plants were often the only medicine available to Okinawans, which must say something for their longevity.

As “something mixed” myself, I have a great deal of affection for the chanpuru and other Okinawan dishes that I grew up with. I delight in my mother’s home grown beniimo, not just for its distinct taste, but also for its glorious purple color. I doubt I’ll ever be a goya fan (after all, it’s not called bitter melon for nothing) and, as a vegetarian I obviously no longer eat pork. Yet, I confess to serving my own kids (when they were kids) tofu, cabbage and SPAM over rice. It was actually one of their favorites. And someday, I’ll make my own andagi, but not as long as my mother keeps making hers.

To the western world, The Okinawa Program might be just another health fad that’s already come and gone, but Okinawans are still among the longest-living, healthiest people on the planet, pork and all.

 

This article was originally published in Nikkei Heritage Vol. XX, No. 1 (Winter - Spring 2009), a journal of the National Japanese American Historical Society.

© 2009 National Japanese American Historical Society

chanpuru food okinawa Spam

このシリーズについて

This series republishes selected articles from Nikkei Heritage, the quarterly journal of the National Japanese American Historical Society in San Francisco, CA. The issues provide timely analysis and insight into the many facets of the Japanese American experience. NJAHS has been a Discover Nikkei Participating Organization since December 2004.

Visit the National Japanese American Historical Society Web site >>